FEBRUARY 24, 2006
The story so far in 2006
Pre-season testing is never very reliable to discern exactly how competitive Formula 1 teams really are, although it usually gives some indication as to who we should expect to see at the front. Much depends on whether or not teams run their cars in fully legal spec and the fuel loads that are put into the cars. Sometimes good times will suddenly pop up from nowhere but this is usually due to the fact that a team drained the tank and told the driver to see what he could do. On other occasions teams have been known to deliberately disguise their potential in order to wrong-foot the opposition at the first race.
The pattern that seems to have emerged thus far is that the Renault and Honda teams will be fighting for victory at the start of the year. Both teams have been quick and the cars have been pretty reliable as well, although both have had problems. The Renault R26 should be a better car that last year's R25, in relative terms because, obviously, the change of engines has disrupted any direct comparisons. Honda too has the resources, the money and, perhaps most important, the desire to win. Last year Honda was humiliated and that is often a good incentive for a big improvement.
By that reckoning Ferrari should also be good but thus far the signs have not been hugely positive. The Bridgestone tyres are still, apparently, not as good as the Michelins in normal racing conditions, although we still need to see more indications of durability to be sure which will be better in the races. The Ferrari drivers have not turned in the times nor have they been very glowing in their remarks. Others, such as Toyota's Ralf Schumacher, has been less reserved. Ralf says that he cannot see the Ferrari 248F1 having the potential to win races.
The potential of Toyota is also a bit of a mystery because the team has been working away not far from the pace throughout the winter. There seems to be a tyre disadvantage (particularly as Toyota is new to Bridgestone) and the team made it very clear that it would not have the correct aerodynamic package until very recently. Toyota should be good this year but the question is just how good that will be.
There is also a big question mark over McLaren and judging by the early remarks about the MP4-21, the drivers were less than impressed with the Mercedes-Benz V8 engine. Things have improved but the fast times set in recent days seem to be more to do with fuel loads and engine lifing than anything else. Running in normal conditions the cars do not seem to be there. However, McLaren must never be underestimated and there has been some improvement since the early tests.
Of the rest Williams seems to have a good strong engine but there are questions over the effectiveness of the tyres, as the team has switched to Bridgestone. The chassis does not seem to be too bad either but it looks as though much will be down to the tyres.
BMW seems to be going well - particularly in the PR department - as it carefully downplayed ambitions at the launch and is now looking rather promising. Having said that there is no real sign that the team will have madse up the ground necessary to be challenging for honours.
Red Bull should be doing well given that a Ferrari engine in a Mark Smith chassis ought to be a potent combination but the early overheating problems will have slowed progress and the very fact that a redesign was needed suggests that the resulting car will not be as efficient as had been planned. The team has done a good job to gloss over the problems and so we will be hoping to see them deliver.
Scuderia Toro Rosso will be a lot more competitive than Minardi used to be, thanks mainly to the fact that the team will have rev-limited V10s and is using a car which looks a lot like an old Red Bull RB1. If the team cannot achieve something half-decent with this combination, at least compared to its traditional rivals, it will be a disappointment.
MF1 Racing is fortunate that Super Aguri F1 has turned up and so will start the year on the penultimate row of the grid. Once Super Aguri gets a new car things may change with the team hoping to jump up once the new car is sorted. For the new team, however, this is a learning year and so expectations should not be carefully measured.
Thus far, Jenson Button has set the best time of the winter with a V8 car at Barcelona - the principal winter testing venue - clocking a 1m13.935s lap. This compares with the best V10 time at the track, set in April 2005 when Button clocked 1m13.552s. This means that the switch from V10s to V8s has not much changed the lap times.
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